Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture


Cecil B. DeMille (second from right) poses with Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Samuel (Goldfish) Goldwyn, and Albert Kaufman after the Famous Players-Lasky merger, from Cecil B.DeMille and American Culture

Not all of the e-books that are freely available online are titles that have been out of print for decades. The University of California Press is one publisher that has boldly made the decision to make some of its relatively recent books available online to all, as part of its general eScholarship Editions initiative. Among the titles available are some silent cinema subjects. We’ve already mentioned Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. Now we have Sumiko Higashi’s Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era.

This is an acclaimed study of the films of Cecil B. DeMille as they reflected American culture of the 1910s and 1920s. It is not a film history as such, but rather a social history, with a body of films as evidence. Higashi demonstrates how DeMille integrated cinema into what she calls ‘genteel culture’ by making the spectacle that it provided reflect middle-class ideology. DeMille took his subjects for films from texts – plays, novels, short stories – that were familiar to a middle-class audience, reflecting their world and its concerns. The DeMille we think of today was the producer of gargantuan Biblical epics, but the DeMille of the silent era was first a filmmaker artfully attuned to ‘genteel’ tastes, and then a trendsetter, whose 1920s films influenced advertising and consumer culture. The varied films discussed include Carmen, What’s His Name, Chimmie Fadden, Kindling, The Dream Girl, The Golden Chance, The Cheat, Joan the Woman, Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife?, The Affairs of Anatol and The Ten Commandments.

Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture, as with other UCP eScholarship Editions, is commendably well presented in chapterised form, with hyperlinked notes and index making it eminently searchable. There is also a filmography, and the welcome presence of all of the book’s illustrations (something not always offered with ebook editions). All in all, a stimulating read and a most helpful reference source, which now goes into the Bioscope Library.

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